10 Min Read
Oct 07 2022
Recently Angel City Sporting Director Eniola Aluko spoke to Colm Hand about her work with the NWSL expansion side, her background as a Sporting Director with Aston Villa as the Los Angeles-based side finished their first season in the league.
After a stellar playing career which featured over 100 caps for England and representing Great Britain at the 2012 Olympics, Aluko became a well-established pundit and commenced her executive career as Sporting Director at Aston Villa.
“Pretty much a year before I retired, I knew the direction I wanted to go and it was just about connecting within the football industry and speaking to people that that’s what I wanted to do. My final six months at Juventus I got the offer to become Sporting Director at Villa, and I felt that it was my opportunity to move into the executive side of the game.
Whilst I was ready to retire, at 33 there was still a little bit of fuel in the tank. But I didn’t really want to go back to England and play for a club at a lower level after so many years winning titles and playing in the Champions league. I wanted to start my career as a Sporting Director so that’s how it started really, moving back to where it all started in Birmingham and working at Aston Villa” Aluko said.
Aluko had ambitions to follow this route while still a player, participating in the UEFA MIP, a Masters for International Players alongside several other former professionals now operating at senior levels across the game. Before her professional playing career, the England Centurion attained a first-class Law degree at Brunel University in London. These tools helped equip Aluko with the tools to succeed in the boardroom.
“The MIP was pretty much focused on what executive life looks like for a player that doesn’t necessarily want to go into coaching. I knew I didn’t really want to go into coaching as I felt that it was too close to playing and I was very intense as a player. It was all or nothing for me, I wanted to win all the time and play at the highest level. I played in a very sort of fast-paced energetic way, and I just felt like I needed something different. I’ve got so many other interests outside of football, I wanted to be able to travel, I wanted to have a little bit of distance from the pitch.
So I knew I didn’t want to go into coaching, but I had a legal background, a passion for football and an analytical sort of mind. All the combination of those things was why I went down the Sporting Director route,” she added.
Upon undertaking the role at Aston Villa, the former Chelsea star, set about helping the Midlands club to become a mainstay in the WSL.
“My mandate in coming in as Sporting Director at the time was to keep Villa in the league following promotion from the Championship. The WSL for a long time has been a very competitive League and the gap between the top and the bottom has been growing. And so for newly promoted teams, it’s very difficult to compete. Villa wanted to become an established WSL team and build from that point onwards,” said Aluko.
Villa have taken huge strides in the last two years, including recently beating Manchester City. And despite no longer working for the Villains, Aluko is proud of the foundations she helped lay there.
“Looking back, keeping Villa in the league, then watching them build over the next two seasons, which now allows them to get amazing results such as the recent victory over Man City, where someone like Rachel Daly who has just won the Euros, scored two goals. Two years ago, Villa women wouldn’t have been able to do that. I remember losing 7-1 against Manchester City and it was an awful feeling. But that’s where the club were at the time as a newly promoted team. Two years on, I take a lot of pride in establishing WSL status for that long-term journey the club is now on with a strong head coach like Carla Ward and supportive CEO Christian Purslow.”
Aluko took the job of Sporting Director at Angel City FC, an expansion team of the NWSL, which has a high-profile ownership group, including Serena Williams and Natalie Portman, amongst others. Being a trailblazer from her punditry career in the UK, the 35-year-old embraced the challenge of representing the only professional women’s team based in Los Angeles.
“I’ve always been somebody that was quite comfortable being the first one to open the door or first to lead the way, such as in my punditry career as the first woman or female player on Match of the Day and first Sporting Director at Aston Villa. I’ve always felt quite comfortable being the pioneer. And so, as the first Sporting Director of Angel City, I just believed that it was a career opportunity that was so unique that I would regret not taking the leap of faith to build a team from scratch. Taking the job was going to help in terms of me growing as a Sporting Director, learning and being able to work with a much bigger ownership group.
I think it took a lot of courage to take the job. I presented a very clear vision and ambition to the board and owners and then just set in motion, what do I have to do in the short, medium and long term? Okay, I’ve got to get the coaches in immediately. Then recruitment in the transfer window. The European transfer window was open at the time and the UK and US seasons overlap. So the US season was not going to start until 2022, but I had to build the team of players pretty much immediately because the European window was open and those deals take time to finalise. Time is your friend with recruitment” added Aluko.
Despite being in the role for a relatively short time, Aluko has already noted the differences in working within the NWSL, to working with Aston Villa.
“At Aston Villa, I was reporting to the club’s CEO, Christian Purslow. I was expected to professionalise the women’s team from a semi-professional set up to a professional set up ready to compete in the WSL. This meant coming up with solutions myself such as moving the women’s team out of the men’s first team building into the academy building where we had our own building space for meetings, analysis and changing rooms with exclusive pitches for the women’s team. Ultimately, Purslow entrusted me to focus on the professionalisation of the Women’s team across operations, coaching, team culture and recruitment, so I linked in a lot of others across the club, Head of Commercial and the deputy CEO on a more regular basis. I was expected to come up with the recommendations for the women’s team by the time I spoke to Christian and I had the recommendations and solutions at hand that were then approved and supported by him. It was such a valuable experience for me to have this level of trust so early in my career as a Sporting Director.
With Angel City and in the NWSL full stop, I think the Sporting Director role is one that people don’t really understand and is formed in a different way The Sporting Director role is often titled as ‘General Manager’ in America and General Managers are not always typically always football hires, they may manage the operations, the logistics etc.
As Sporting Director at Angel City, I don’t have any purview over operations or managing player experience as a former player which is challenging in terms of providing solutions for the players to have a professional elite environment that I was able to establish immediately at Aston Villa. My role at Angel City has heavily involved creating and recruiting the team of players and staff but not being able to impact the environment or daily experience of those players and staff, which I think is so important particularly as a former player that experienced elite environments such as Chelsea and Juventus. You can hire amazing chefs and cooks but without an amazing kitchen, that chef probably cannot cook a Michelin star meal very well.
At Villa, I had a purview over the management of the training facility where the players were going to train, where the players were going to eat, where the players were going to get to do their strength and conditioning. So, the player experience came under my role, which is really important because in women’s football if you can’t manage the player experience in the professional game, it’s very difficult to create an elite environment that allows female athletes to feel valued and equal professionals,” Aluko explained.
Coming from the footballing side of thinking, Aluko feels like she can add even more value to clubs, particularly at this exciting stage for women’s football worldwide.
“I think one of the things that American sports owners do very well in sport is creating a genuine entertainment product, but it’s not as football-focused culturally as in Europe. So the focus sometimes is more on that wider organisational brand with football seen as less of a priority on a weekly basis.
I think a Sporting Directors’ job is always to build a good football product and there’s no getting away from that in terms of the Sporting direction. So, whether it’s Angel City, whether it’s Villa, Chelsea, you have to build a good football team and an elite environment that allows that football team to thrive and be successful. That is fundamental.
I think the question often is, how much of a priority is the product on the pitch? It’s like a catch-22 because the more Angel City leads the way on the brand and commercial side, the more that brand and commercial becomes the celebrated focus. Brand and commercial is an important part of the development of women’s football but we still need to keep investing in the football environment, the training facility, the day-to-day experience with the players, so that true equity, equality and elite standards for female footballers sets them up for success to perform at the weekend,” Aluko added.
Aluko will be hoping the hard work she has put in during Angel City’s inaugural NWSL season will result in a playoff appearance as the campaign reaches its conclusion, something which would be an extraordinary result for an expansion team.
Aluko’s hard work she has put in building Angel City’s team in the inaugural NWSL season resulted in Angel City finishing with the second highest finish in NWSL history for an expansion team, something which has set the bar and is a strong competitive achievement for an expansion team.
This article was composed by Colm Hand and Liverpool John Moores University student Kevin Bannon.
Photo Credit: Sky Sports